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Martha Griffiths and her role in the Civil Rights Act and Equal Rights Amendment

“I don't know really that I have so much perseverance as I do a sense of indignity at the fact that women are not justly treated. I have the same sort of feeling for Blacks, Latinos and the Asiatics. If we are America, then we ought to be what we say we are. We ought to be the land of the free and the brave. What people sought in this land was justice.” 

- Martha Griffiths (January 29, 1912 – April 22, 2003)

Martha Griffiths' contributions to women's rights are often overlooked in American history classes. Griffiths began her career as an American lawyer and judge before her election to the United States House of Representatives in 1954. She made history as the first woman on the influential House Committee on Ways and Means. Griffiths also played a pivotal role in the inclusion of sex discrimination prohibition under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was a prominent advocate for reviving the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

The guarantee of women’s rights in the United States is one we mistakenly take for granted. And I imagine most Americans are unaware of how adding the single word “sex” to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only happened after a fierce fight. In the 1950s, the women’s rights movement began to piggyback on the Civil Rights Movement that had recently gained traction thanks to Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus boycott. This created tensions between the advocates of women’s rights and advocates of rights for African Americans, because at the time it was unclear if there was space for both causes. The long-standing practice of keeping women’s rights distinct from racial issues may have been one reason that there were almost no women on the three-hour program at the March on Washington.

Even so, in February 1964, after many versions and attempts to pass a Civil Rights Bill had failed, an amendment (the brainchild of Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party) was proposed to add the word “sex” to Title VII of the bill, which prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of “race, color, religion, or national origin.” During the Hearing, most House Representatives initially dismissed and chuckled at the proposed amendment, but Griffiths, a member of the NWP and AAUW, remained resolute. She argued that equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race or gender, were interconnected and inseparable. Despite opposition which focused on passing the Civil Rights Bill for African Americans without added amendments, Griffiths persisted. Even AAUW opposed the amendment. Nevertheless, it passed in the House and later in the Senate, becoming law on July 2, 1964. To oversee it, the act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Despite this huge success, leaders in Washington viewed the prohibition of sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act as an unintended addition, not to be enforced as strictly as racial discrimination. However, of the 8,854 complaints filed in the EEOC’s first year, nearly a third alleged gender bias. The commission grappled with two notable cases: newspapers listing job ads by gender and airlines laying off female flight attendants upon marriage or reaching a certain age. The concept of "bona fide occupational qualification" (B.F.O.Q.) was debated, particularly regarding flight attendants.

In June 1966, during a Commissions on the Status of Women conference, administration officials indicated the EEOC would take a lenient stance on gender discrimination. Griffiths sharply criticized this approach in a House speech, questioning why gender-based job listings were acceptable when racial ones weren't. She also challenged the idea of B.F.O.Q.s for flight attendants, arguing that qualifications and abilities should determine hiring, not gender. 

Griffiths' speech at the conference inspired calls for an organization akin to the NAACP for women. That summer, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded. NOW's first action was to seek a writ of mandamus against the EEOC, pushing it to fulfill its legal duties, as Title VII represented the primary legal tool available to the women's movement.

In 1971, the first Title VII gender-discrimination case reached the Supreme Court. The Court's unanimous decision in Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. found that the company's practice of refusing to hire women with preschool-age children violated Title VII. The case was initiated by Ida Phillips, a white woman represented by the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the NAACP. Finally, advocates for women and African Americans collaborated to ensure the United States upheld Title VII.

Griffiths is also known for resurrecting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). After 50 years of failing to pass the House, she succeeded in its House passage in 1971 and the Senate in 1972. Despite this, the ERA to date is still not an amendment to the Constitution, leaving women’s legal equality subject to the whims of lawmakers and judges. 

While there are laws in place to protect women from gender-based discrimination, court rulings over the years since their passage have created legal precedent on how the laws can be interpreted and enforced, often to the detriment of what the laws were originally intended to protect women from. Without the ERA, gender-based discrimination is becoming harder and harder to prove in a court of law. Until the U.S. Constitution is amended to explicitly state that equality of rights cannot be denied or abridged on account of sex, the political and judicial victories women have achieved are vulnerable to erosion or reversal (think Roe v. Wade!) at any time — now or in the future. AAUW and other organizations are still fighting to affirm the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution. You can join that fight by telling Congress to affirm the Equal Rights Amendment!


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